Penske tired of coming up short in title race

JENNA FRYER (AP Auto Racing Writer)
The Associated Press

HOUSTON (AP) -- Roger Penske's drivers have had five different chances to win him an IndyCar championship since Sam Hornish Jr. claimed the 2006 title.

Helio Castroneves had a shot in 2008 and came up short. Same with Ryan Briscoe in 2009. Then it was Will Power the last three years.

''I've been second so many times, I don't want to see No. 2 anymore,'' Penske said in a telephone interview this week with The Associated Press. ''We had this thing in our hand probably three out of the last four years and ended up a bridesmaid. So I think that this year, we've got a big lead and we need to protect it and race that way. My goal is to come out with a championship.''

Got that, Helio?

Castroneves goes into the Grand Prix of Houston this weekend with a 49-point lead over Scott Dixon while seeking his first IndyCar Series championship. The drivers head into the event after a nearly five-week layoff - IndyCar's last points race was Sept. 1 at Baltimore - and will race Saturday and Sunday as part of a doubleheader weekend.

That's ample time for Dixon, a two-time champion, to pounce: He climbed into the title race with a July win on the oval at Pocono followed the next week with a sweep of the doubleheader event at Toronto. Those three wins in seven days moved the Chip Ganassi Racing driver from seventh to second in the IndyCar standings and directly into Castroneves' rearview mirrors.

It's the last thing Penske wanted to see.

Dixon beat Castroneves for the 2008 title by 18 points even though Castroneves won the season finale. In 2009, Briscoe went into the finale locked into the title race with Ganassi drivers Dixon and Dario Franchitti. After leading a race-high 103 laps, Briscoe had to make a late stop for fuel and Franchitti won the title.

Franchitti then beat Power in 2010 and 2011 as Ganassi beat Penske four consecutive years for the championship. Last season, it was Ryan Hunter-Reay from Andretti Autosport defeating Penske Racing, in part because Power crashed midway through the final race.

''I'm not naive to know that there's not some competition out there with Ganassi and with little Andretti, but at the end of the day there's a number of guys who can win the races and we're going to have to be one of them,'' Penske said. ''Helio's got a nice lead, but he's got to execute. We're in a different situation than maybe the people who are chasing us.''

Penske said he spoke with Castroneves earlier this week, and described the Brazilian as ''galvanized'' for the stretch run. The season concludes Oct. 19 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., where Castroneves was fastest during last week's open test session.

''He was quick and felt very good,'' Penske said. ''He's raring to go. These guys don't like to go off and sit for two or three weeks. But you know Helio. He's a pro, this is a championship that he wants and it's going to be up to the other guys to beat us.''

And just to make sure that everything goes according to plan, Penske said he'll be on top of Castroneves' pit stand for the final three races. The team owner replaced race strategist John Erickson at Texas in June, and has been calling Castroneves' races during the second half of the season. Penske was not at the Sept. 1 race at Baltimore, where Castroneves finished ninth.

''I'll call the last three races for sure,'' Penske said. ''If there's any mistakes, any issues, you can blame it on me.''

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